An elementary charter school I know takes its fourth graders on a field trip to a nearby Big-10 campus and once a year thereafter. Part of its philosophy is that “scholars, beginning in Kindergarten, should be exposed to frequent college experiences.” Its halls are lined with college pennants; teachers wear their alma maters’ sweatshirts on Fridays and their classrooms are named after those same schools. Its students are called “scholars.”
A charter high school nearby, one of a network of charters, steers its students to “most competitive” colleges, partly by offering its counselors bonuses for doing so. The organization I formerly worked for insists that candidates for its college access programming interview with big-time lawyers, doctors, and financial types at plush, marbleized offices in Chicago high rises. Connecting “college” to visible and corporate wealth and success seems to be regarded as a motivator for children as young as nine.
To get to the elementary charter school one has to pass blocks of deserted houses and corners populated by groups of men hanging out; nearly all the students concerned come from low income and first generation-college backgrounds. It’s safe to say that few, if any, have ever been on a college campus, especially as 9-year olds. Making the leap from one to the other requires covering a gap much larger than the bus ride to the northern suburbs.
Those of us involved in college access and success programs are always trying to get our students (and their families) to think about preparing for and attending college. Their better-situated peers, those from privileged and college-attending backgrounds, have heard about college all their lives one way or another. They’ve seen mom’s and/or dad’s diplomas and photos, met their college friends, and may have even been taken to campus as babies during reunions. Mom’s sorority sister may have given mom’s daughter an internship at her magazine. The idea of “college” is always running in the background, like the low-level hum from a generator, and with it comes the idea of “success”: “If you go to college, you’ll be able to have all this!”
The “this” for low-income/first generation-college kids seems entirely based on externals. Subjecting our students to the lush lawns and impressive buildings of a suburban university on a lake; the sleek, corporate art-filled hallways and boardrooms of law firms; and the presence of well-to-do interviewers seem designed not to encourage real intellectual and personal growth among them but to spur them toward acquisition and corporatism. And what does that mean, exactly, for a 9-year old who has to dodge drug dealers to get to school? What will he really take with him as a result?
Is it truly motivating to show our kids Oz and expect them to work toward it? If the goal is to get kids to work harder in school so they can get to college in the first place, I have to question whether dangling the goods in front of them is really all that effective in the long run. We have to restate the proposition as, “If you do well in school, you’ll be able to go to college and then have all this!” Does it really make sense to boil everything down to a simple equation? Surely there’s a lot more to it than that.
Poorer kids are set on a treadmill that may or may not bring them to the leafy lawns of “most selective” colleges, and may or may not result in “success” as defined by height above the city or distance from their homes of origin. (And, not incidentally, defined by others who claim to know what’s good for them.) They are goaded to work harder to get better scores, to behave better to avoid punishment, and to aspire in ways others think they should aspire. Everything they do in class (always described as “rigorous” but which often seems more like the “rigor” of assembly line production) becomes simply a step up a ladder, not an imaginative exploration or an in-depth discussion.
Glorifying Oz makes everything students do merely pragmatic, a way to get somewhere else. It defeats the more meaningful purposes of education, which include, in part, acquiring knowledge and self-discovery, questioning received wisdom, and realizing the amazing complexity of the world and one’s place in it. Showing poor 9-year olds the Emerald City instead of helping them imagine and construct their own or trying to impress them with ultra-luxe interview spaces short-circuits the good intentions of everyone involved.
I suggest putting “college” and images of material success in the background and finding ways to enable our students to learn and think more deeply in age-appropriate ways. (If I remember correctly, the elementary school was once taking its second-graders on that trip. The site now says fourth.) I suggest helping students learn to define their own goals while giving them the tools to achieve them. Let students make their own Yellow Brick Roads with help from caring adults instead of holding out the (often illusory and by no means the only) promise of material success at some far off future moment.
Several years ago, I spoke to the faculty at the charter elementary school after hearing about their trips to campuses. I brought with me a selection of stuffed college mascots I’ve collected over the years and suggested that it might make more sense for young students to “adopt” the teachers’ colleges’ mascots and write stories about them, research their real-world counterparts (what, exactly, is a badger?), and do other things that might be more age-appropriate for young children. Taking them to Oz could wait; fascination with real or imagined creatures and being willing to write about and have fun with them could not. I don’t know whether they ever took up the idea.